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July 27, 2017

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Youth find ways to reclaim Hakka identity

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- From childhood, Zhengwei Lee, 23, had no contact with his Hakka background. Lee never spoke Hakka at home, and his elementary school in Chiayi only taught Taiwanese as the mother language.

"I don't know how to speak Hakka, and there are no books or ways to record Hakka because it's mostly oral," Lee said. "I don't want my generation to completely forget Hakka, but on the other hand, there are few places where you can use Hakka."

Lee is not alone. According to the Hakka Affairs Council language use survey, 47.3 percent of Hakka people can speak the Hakka language, and only 22.8 percent of Hakka people ages 19 to 29 can speak Hakka. The figure is even lower for those below age 18. In fact, the lower the age, the less likely one is to speak Hakka.

"Now, if you are telling young people that culture is important, they will also consider whether it is useful," said Wei-An Chang, professor and dean of the College of Hakka Studies at National Chiao Tung University. "If you want to bring in young people, culture and business have to be brought together."

The Return Our Mother Tongue Movement was founded in 1988, and Hakkas in the movement fought for policies allowing the teaching of mother languages in schools, including Hakka. Starting in 2001, mother tongue education became mandatory in Taiwan's elementary schools. Today's college students are among the first to graduate with some mother language education. However, the effects are small.

"The elementary school mother tongue education is really bad, the opportunity to use what we learn is not large," said Shaunting Chen, 23. "We're just memorizing vocabulary words, so there isn't much use. There aren't conversational words. Knowing conversational phrases would be much more useful."

Furthermore, many Hakka youth do not express interest in learning Hakka.

"There's no development, so I wouldn't want to spend time learning it," said Yingquan Liao, 24.

But Liao has explored some of his cultural background. He often identifies as half-Hakka as a way to stand out. His mother's side of the family is Hakka and comes from Hsinchu. Out of interest, Liao did online research about his mother's family and surname history. Although his Hakka cultural background fascinates him, he does not feel a deep connection with it.

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